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Hitchcock

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Hitch-crock!
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

In "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,'" the Stephen Rebello nonfiction book upon which this movie is ostensibly based, American serial killer Ed Gein is mentioned in five instances over the course of 200-plus pages. In every instance (except a single fleeting mention in the context of a subsequent film based on his exploits) it is relative to the Robert Bloch novel inspired by Gein's exploits. That novel, genre buffs know, served as the basis for Hitchcock's 1960 movie.

Gein plays a much larger role in the movie "Hitchcock," written by John J. McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi. As played by Michael Wincott, he functions as a shrink, a detective and a motivational speaker for Alfred Hitchcock, the corpulent Britain-born director. Weird, I know. But it all makes sense. Sort of.

Search: More on Alfred Hitchcock | More on Anthony Hopkins

"Hitchcock" starts off with the filmmaker, whom we're told is based on a real person, casting about for a new project hot on the heels of a successful, albeit somewhat standard, hit (that would be "North by Northwest"). Aging, and in an industry that's being outflanked by television, he worries about obsolescence, and he's not alone. "Shouldn't you just quit while you're ahead?" one fedora-wearing reporter asks him on the red carpet. Wow. Ryan Seacrest or Billy Bush would never be so blunt; journalists really did have guts back in those days. Determined to stay ahead of the times, he picks the Bloch novel and, met with resistance from not just his studio head but from his trusted assistant and closest collaborator and co-conspirator -- and wife -- Alma (Helen Mirren), soldiers ahead with his "horror film," which everyone around him, save agent Lew Wasserman, fears is in the worst taste.

So soon Hitchcock, played with not inappropriate relish by Anthony Hopkins, starts speaking to the crazed Midwest killer Gein, and Gein starts talking back to him, filling his mind with ideas that Alma might be having an affair with rakish author Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Gein fuels the rage that impels Hitchcock to freak out actress Janet Leigh by enacting a near-foaming-at-the-mouth demonstration of how he wants the stabbing in the shower-murder sequence of "Psycho" (apparently a real motion picture) to go. It's just like in "True Romance," when Christian Slater's character talks to Elvis!

Only it's stupid and it doesn't work. "Hitchcock" is the "JFK" of movies about moviemaking, but at least Oliver Stone had the excuse of Jim Garrison's "findings" to hang his loony fiction on. The actual process of making a film is both tedious and kind of fascinating, and is hard to put on screen convincingly. Challenged to do this, the makers of "Hitchcock" contrive a lot of claptrap that they leaven, if that's the right word, with unpleasant fact-based material concerning Hitchcock's increasingly odd obsessions with respect to his lead actresses. And while the filmmakers deserve some kind of good-intention credit for concocting a scenario that tries to show the extent to which Alma contributed to Hitchcock's art, it creates most of its dramatic friction by portraying its title character as a largely hapless creep.

This Hitchcock fan has been aware of the fact that Hitchcock wasn't a "nice guy" for some time now, but I've already seen this film's detractors characterized as acting out of hero worship, so I suppose I ought to tread carefully here. I suppose the filmmakers have every right to take almost science-fiction-proportioned liberties with the life and work of the Master of Suspense. But in exchange for doing so they also ought to contrive a movie that is entertaining and maybe even illuminating about the movie business as it was back in the day. No such luck.

"Hitchcock" is never knowing, but frequently know-somethingish, as when Hitchcock agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg in a thankless role, although he must have been happy to play a power broker rather than the schlubs this fine actor has recently been getting kind of typecast as) answers a question from his client, "Are you referring to that deal I got you where Bristol Meyers pays you $130,000 per episode and you own the negative?" When it's not playing fast and loose with Hitchcock himself, the movie disparages other filmmakers: "Compared to Orson Welles he's a sweetheart," Scarlett Johansson's blanded-out Janet Leigh confides of Hitchcock to Jessica Biel's blanded-out Vera Miles. As it happens, Leigh and Orson Welles got along well on the set of "Touch of Evil," and Welles, of all the golden-age Hollywood directors, loved his actors best of all.

Elsewhere "Hitchcock" lobs random, cheap insults at directors Frank Tashlin and Anthony Mann, both of whom had more talent in their ring fingers than likely subsists in the entirety of Sacha Gervasi's family tree. There, I said it and I'm glad. Don't even get me started on the insulting portrayal of Anthony Perkins here.

Those gullible enough to swallow what "Hitchcock" is peddling might speculate, on leaving the theater, that Hitchcock's marriage to Alma might have been better had it not been childless. What do you know, their real-life marriage was not. And the couple's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, has a small part in, of all things, "Psycho." She's very funny in it, too. Check it out some time.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at
http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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